Trey Edward Shults piqued critics’ attention back in 2015, when he wrote, produced, directed, edited and starred in Krisha, a disturbing study of personal demons that was based on his short film. Shults’ follow-up – the criminally underrated and misunderstood psychological thriller It Comes At Night – reinforced the fact that the man was a cinematic force to be reckoned with.
Waves, his third collaboration with the formidable distributor/production company A24, finally establishes him as one of the best filmmakers of his – or any – generation. The film’s an absolute masterwork: intimately epic, powerfully acted, visually and aurally gorgeous, heart-shredding, and raw-as-blood in its brutal honesty. As tough and fragile as the wing of a butterfly, Waves will catch you off-guard every step of the way. It will make you cry, yet never manipulate your emotions. It will reaffirm your belief in the power of film. Mere words cannot do justice to the gift Shults has bestowed on us.
“His life’s comprised of a series of rigorous training, under the harsh glare of his father.”
Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a high-school wrestler. He lives with his little sister Emily (Taylor Russell), stepmom Catharine (Renee Elise Goldberry), and dad Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). His life’s comprised of a series of rigorous training, under the harsh glare of his father. They work out together ceaselessly, flexing in front of the mirror. They arm-wrestle at a diner. Teeth clenched, eyes filled with resentment and expectation, Ronald pushes his son to the very limit. “The world don’t give a s**t about you or me,” he lectures. “We don’t have the luxury of being average. I don’t push you because I want to, I push you because I have to.” He doesn’t apply nearly as much pressure to Emily. In fact, he pretty much ignores his daughter, razor-focused on shaping Tyler into a machine. (The mantra of Tyler’s wrestling team is, “I cannot be taken down, I’m a machine,” repeated endlessly).
At one point, Tyler quite literally breaks. The doctor informs him that he has a “level five tear” in his shoulder, which requires immediate surgery. It’s the middle of the season. Terrified of Ronald, Tyler keeps it a secret, resorting to stealing his father’s Oxycodone for the pain instead. In the meantime, his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), informs Tyler that she’s pregnant. “Everything is going to be all right,” he reassures her romantically at the beach – yet when she can’t go through with it at the abortion clinic, they engage in a violent confrontation. Hopped up on booze and drugs, fueled by pressure and pain, both physical and mental, Tyler finally implodes. This leads to a series of events so visceral. I cannot spoil much here. Let’s just say, the film shifts perspective about halfway through its two-hour running time, completely pulling the rug from under your feet.